If it goes ahead April’s outline nuclear deal, the ‘Joint Plan of Action’, between the so- called P5+1 world powers and Iran would mark a major shift in relations between these countries, especially the western ones, as well as in the Middle East. Even if a final ratification of this “political understanding” is delayed, the negotiations themselves were evidence of the realignment of forces taking place in the region.
Disastrous aftereffects of Iraqi invasion
Fundamentally this attempted deal is a result of the changing world balance of forces and the continuing aftermath of the 2003 US and British led invasion of Iraq.
While China’s economic growth and growing international influence has chipped away at the US’s world position, the disastrous aftereffects of the Iraqi invasion helped bring to an end the brief period in the 1990s when the US dominated the world scene. This invasion was disastrous first and foremost for millions of Iraqis and secondly for the war’s architects. The limits to US and the already seriously diminished British power were seen in the collapse of their governments’ hopes of establishing a new order in the Middle East by eliminating or neutralising forces hostile to them. But, in fact, the opposite happened, something seen clearly in this proposed deal with Iran.
For the Iraqi people the 2003 invasion meant huge casualties, increased suffering and conflict, but for the instigators and supporters of Bush and Blair’s adventure it was a strategic defeat that also represented a huge waste of resources. Not only did the Iraq invasion destabilise the entire region it also, in the opposite of what Washington intended, strengthened Iran’s regional power. All in all this was a major setback for the western powers which after the Shah’s overthrow in 1979 had sought to isolate Iran and had, under Reagan and Thatcher, supported Saddam during the 1980-89 Iran-Iraq war he initiated.
In an article largely bemoaning the deal, but offering no real alternative, former US Sectaries of State Kissinger and Shultz lamented that “negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years.” (Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2015). This compromise before Iran was not what Washington and London envisaged in 2003.
Aftermath of “Arab spring”
The 2011 revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East initially struck new blows against the western powers as some of their strongmen allies, especially Mubarak, were overthrown. They had a real fear that revolutions would spread to other countries and develop beyond removing autocrats and dictators into social revolutions.
But while this initial revolutionary wave was derailed, resulting in enormous lost opportunities for the working class and poor to secure a break with oppression and capitalism, the subsequent counter-revolution did not restore the previous position for imperialism. In fact imperialism has lost direct influence as the counter-revolution unleashed centrifugal forces largely based upon nationality, tribal or religious divisions. This development, seen most clearly in the tearing apart of Libya and Syria, created even more misery and instability throughout the region. It was against this background that the explosive advance of Isis, and other fundamentalist groups, only added to the gloom of imperialism.
The main imperialist powers, sensing the weakness of many of their traditional Arab allies and fearing Isis’s rapid advance, were forced to reach out to possible new allies, hence western support for the leaders of the autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq. In Iraq a de facto, unofficial working arrangement developed between the US and the Iranian forces supporting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government in its battle with Isis.
It is against that background that behind the scenes efforts to achieve a rapprochement with Iran deepened, something which the outline deal has taken to a new stage.
At this moment the world powers, especially the western imperialist ones, need the help of the Iranian regime against the threat of Isis and other Sunni fundamentalists in Iraq and Syria. But this tactic threatens to undermine the western powers’ relationship with the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, many of which have supported and funded various Sunni fundamentalists. These largely autocratic, feudal rulers are in competition with Iran and fear that Iran, now playing a decisive role in Iraq, will use the Shia populations in countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to extend its reach. This is one reason why the US is warning Iran not to get involved in the developing civil war in Yemen.
At the same time, some western strategists who are more fearful of Iran are not confident that this deal does enough, in their eyes, to weaken Iran’s nuclear programme. Kissinger and Shultz reflect this weakening of the western position when they argue that the development of Iran’s nuclear programme means that “the threat of war now constrains the West more than Iran”. However, in some ways Obama is now following a similar strategy to Kissinger’s own role in preparing the 1972 deal between the US and China leaderships.
While the major world powers are rivals, pursuing their own interests in areas like the Pacific and the Ukraine, this deal with Iran was agreed by the P5 + 1 for different individual reasons. However some of the west’s allies in the Middle East, especially the Israeli and Saudi regimes, are opposed as they fear losing out in a new balance of power. In the Saudi case, they are concerned that an increase in Iranian influence will stimulate protest by their Shia minority, while the Israeli government fears a weakening of its influence on the western powers.
Obama administration balancing between forces
The Obama administration is itself balancing between different forces - in the same week that the outline deal with Iran was signed it restored its annual $1.3bn military aid to Egypt, insured US support for Saudi airstrikes in Yemen and backed the creation of what would be a Sunni Arab military force.
Meanwhile in the US itself the Republicans, with the help of Israeli premier Netanyahu, have moved to oppose the outline deal for both electoral and, for some, foreign policy reasons. They hope to exploit any remaining popular US hostility to Iran after US diplomatic staff were held hostage for 444 days in 1979/1981 and fears, especially amongst the US Jewish and fundamentalist Christian populations, for Israel’s future.
Similarly divisions exist within the Iranian regime. In Iran a combination of growing domestic demand for change, the unstable regional situation, economic sanctions and now the falling oil price have combined to seemingly give a majority to those in favour of a nuclear deal.
But conflicts are continuing within the regime. Currently Iran’s ‘Supreme leader’ Ali Khamenei appears to be supporting “centralist” President Hassan Rouhani’s attempt to reach a deal. But the more sceptical, critical elements, centred around the religious conservative “principle-ists”, have not given up their battle with the centralists especially as elections are due next February for both the parliament and the Assembly of Experts. Recently a “principle-ist” was surprisingly elected as chair of the Assembly of Experts which, amongst other things, selects the Supreme Leader. How much this is window dressing as the regime attempts to get the best deal for itself, is not clear.
What is clear is that the regime sees the growing demand for change and, especially amongst young people, a growing questioning of the religious caste that has ruled since 1979. The regime’s divisions and unease are reflected in both the continued repression and small concessions that are given. Significantly the announcement of the deal was welcomed by spontaneous celebrations in the streets throughout the country, with people singing, cheering and dancing, many holding pictures of President Rouhani. The popularly of the outline deal means that the regime risks provoking opposition, possibly greater than the mass protests after the 2009 presidential election, if they were seen to crudely block its ratification.
This is because the prospect of a deal that lifts the damaging international sanctions on Iran has further fuelled the hopes for change, especially against the backdrop of the oil price drop, hitting the economy and living standards hard.
While inflation has recently fallen from a high of 40% to around 16%, the head of the official, state-backed, workers’ organisation has that said 70% of Iranians are living under poverty line. The Minister of Labour has spoken of 12 million suffering from “food poverty”. The pressure on living standards has now provoked workers’ protests, including auto workers strikes and “silent” protests by 10,000s of teachers across the country at beginning of March.
Iran, with a population of over 80 million and the world’s 18th largest economy, is not just a regional power but also a potential market. Many foreign companies are activity preparing to rush in once sanctions are lifted. Last year the New York Times quoted the executive of an oil firm saying “after the deal we will witness an unbelievable boom”. Within weeks of this deal being signed a group of US investors and business people held a public meeting in Tehran, the first such open event since the 1979 revolution.
Even if the deal does ahead sanctions are likely to be only gradually lifted and, despite the popular high expectations, are unlikely in the current world economic situation to lead to a lasting economic growth.
But the change can give greater confidence to the Iranian working class to struggle for its demands. This could be a key development. The Iranian working class is, along with the working class of Egypt and Turkey, one of the largest in the Middle East. Iran is a relatively developed society; both it and Turkey have around 70% of the population living in urban areas. A large-scale revival of the fighting traditions of the Iranian working class would have an important impact in the entire region, potentially offering an example of mass struggle. If accompanied by socialist ideas this could show a way out of the poverty and violence that has characterised the Middle East under the rule of feudalists, religious bigots and capitalism.